the question of what to believe is is troubling and profound, even in cities like shenzhen, notwithstanding all this capitalism with chinese characteristics. some days it feels like people only say they want to make money because that is what they think they’re expected to say. at heart, i sense that people are making money and how far they are willing to go to make that money (because yes, questions of ideology are also questions of belief) is tied up in reworked versions of what constitutes a “household (家)”. indeed, neotraditionalism and neoconfucianism are profoundly shaping (what i am told is the most feudal of chinese institutions) – early childhood education.
a few years ago a friend of mine gave me a copy of the “three character jing (三字经), a text that chinese children used to memorize as part of a traditional education. my friend told me that after her son had memorized the three character jing, he had become a better student, more filial, and overall a more considerate human being. she concluded that traditional education educated the entire person, whereas modern education was necessary, but incomplete.
i am also aware of a strong impulse toward home-schooling among many people my age. many had their children memorizing chinese classics and indeed, i bought my own recitation copy of the “book of changes”. the set came with pinyin, simplified and standard versions of the text in addition to cds of a man and girl reciting the text. the many who sold me this set told me that when children recited the classics their voices became clearer and more beautiful.
recently, the push toward remaking the self through the classics seems both stronger and more popular – in all senses of the word. a new favorite text is the “standards for being a good student and child (弟子规)”. meanwhile, an administrative assistant has left her job to take her three-year old daughter to a mother-child camp, where she will learn how to teach her daughter the classics.
it is worth noting that although students had been memorizing tang poems as part of their elementary education, the new push for “three characters” and “standards” is (a) part of grassroots pre-school training; (b) involves a moral impulse that combines education with obedience; and (c) is re-coding shenzhen’s nuclear families in confucian terms.
so i am learning to listen to chinese debates about education, debates which frankly did not interest me when i thought of them as being merely about how the gaokao (高考) has ruined the possibility of true learning. in fact, the closer we get to the june test dates, the more incessant and shrill these debates become and the lower my tolerance for parents who say, “but we had no choice [except to force our child to study ten hours a day and give up their dreams of being an artist]”. however, as i have learned to hear how questions about what and how to believe inform these debates, i have become more interested in and yes, more sympathetic to the chinese obsession with education.
there are, after all, many ways of trying to become human.